They wait as they have waited. They tell themselves stories. They dream of a consummation of dust and water.
Then, one day, the truth comes to Mars. It is a ship. A thousand voices rise as one.
“There are three in it! Two men, one woman!”
“They have come in answer to our prayers!”
“They will behave as we have dreamed of them! At last, you will see that my vision of the Earth people is the most precise!”
“Lure them! Lure them to the citadel of fire! Tell them our story!”
The citadel of fire flares. The ship lands. The door opens.
There is a hush.
Daley walks across the Martian dust. It moans under his feet. He touches the doors of the great citadel of fire. There’s a flash of light.
“This is our history,” says a voice in his head. It’s speaking in strange Martian words, but he understands them.
“Once, we were a great people. We were very much like yourself, Earth man. But we did not respect our water. We boiled it in our pots. We locked it in our reservoirs. We walked around with water sloshing in our bellies. And we denied it its natural cycle. When the clouds gathered, we sent Martian Rain Force Omega—the greatest heroes of our kind—to tear them apart.”
Daley can hear the moaning of the dust, and now it makes words. “Water,” it says. “Water. Water.”
“One day,” says the voice, “our undines revolted. They rose from the boiling pots. They were tempests in the reservoirs. They fought the special Martian forces in the sky, and it was their bloody corpses that fell instead of rain. We gathered in our great parched citadels to discuss our course of action, and we heard a susurrus, and terror gripped us. And then the water seceded from us, from our homes and our bodies, and the only thing remaining of our glorious civilization was a cold red dust.”
Daley takes a step back.
“Our water fled us,” whispers the voice of Mars. “It fled through the deeps of space to Earth. You, Earth men. You are our other halves. For sixty-five thousand years we have waited for you. For sixty-five thousand years, we have told romantic legends of the time we’d find you again. You are our apotheosis.”
The dust shrieks for water. Daley runs back to the ship. He slams the door.
There are three of them on Mars: Daley, Pierre, and Sally Sue. They listen to the wind.
“It’s the Martians,” he says. “They’re completely dehydrated, and they think we’re their water.”
There’s a pounding on the walls. Then a scraping.
“They’re trying to scour us out,” Daley says.
Sally dashes to the weapons panel. She fires them off, one after another: the grappling hook, the sonic pulse rifle, the penguin gun, and the Ultimate Post-Nuclear Barrage. Yet none of these things deter the scraping dust. As the door bursts open, and a terrible wind rushes through the ship, she finds shelter in Daley’s arms.
There’s a long silence.
“This is not as it is in our romantic stories of Earth men,” murmurs the dust.
Pierre levels his sidearm at the red dirt riming the newly-forced door. It seems pitifully inadequate.
“We have observed the subtle sexual tension between the two men,” explains the dust. “It is more appropriate, in a Martian romantic legend, for the two of you to embrace.”
“That’s not the way square-jawed heterosexual Earth astronauts behave,” snaps Pierre. “And, while Daley is certainly bisexual, I am of a more statistically traditional mold!”
“Wait,” Sally says. “I don’t have a place in your romantic Martian legends?”
The dust dismisses her point airily. “Naturally, we welcome the women of Earth. Your water calls out across the millennia and light years to join with the dust of your undine’s first soul. Yet . . . it is widely known that most of you are simply projections. Martians who tell the romantic legends—they imagine themselves as these superior beings known as ‘women’. It is a practice that the better storytellers disdain, and it much diminishes your realism, Sally Sue.”
“But I’m an actual physical person!” she protests.
The wind rises. The dust inches closer. Pierre fires, his automatic pistol killing hundreds of individual grains. But Mars’ supply of dust has no end.
“You shot my grandmother,” protests the wind.
Then the sand drowns them.
“So little water,” mourns the dust. “And still it fights us to be free.”
“I had expected some kind of . . . transcendent wisdom,” another grain whispers.
“A secret itch.”
“A stowaway. Or love.”
“Perhaps the next ones to come to our planet will be more like the great heroes of our legends.”
“It’s their writing standards,” Mars proposes. “Their grammar. Their accuracy. Their manuals are bulging with it. It’s like they don’t understand Martian romantic legends at all. It’s like they’re judging us.”
“If they’d just talk to us,” one last whispering voice regrets. “If they’d just talk to us, then they would understand.”